Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

The powder keg that is East Jerusalem

The powder keg that is East Jerusalem

I don’t know if it's because I've never been to an Arab country in the winter before. Or if I was brainwashed as a kid into thinking the Middle East must be hot all the time. Whatever, there's something very incongruous standing in a main street in Amman looking at lots of colourful Arabic shop signs whilst buttoning  an overcoat against cold, wet sleet.

I’m here on a parliamentary delegation funded by the Palestinian Committee of the Jordanian Parliament. Both our hosts and the weather have gone out of their way to make us feel at home: it’s dreich and miserable, worthy of Scotland at its worst.

We have an action packed itinerary with no time for sightseeing. Our three day trip involves meetings with MPs, senators, academics and the King himself. We talk generally about the plight of the Palestinians, 2.2 million of whom are refugees in Jordan, and specifically about the holy sites in East Jerusalem.

Jordan is one of only two Middle Eastern countries which has a peace treaty with – and recognises – Israel. King Abdullah II and his senior advisors are English educated, well read, suave and sincere. Yet these mild mannered men are being driven to the edge of reason by the actions of the Israeli government.

Their frustration is compounded by the Israel-Palestine situation having dropped down the international agenda as the region is torn apart by conflict and civil war elsewhere. In the 80s, one senior diplomat explained, Palestine was number one for the Arab nations – now it ranks between five and seven, depending which wars a state is involved in.

Jordan cannot deprioritise. It is physically connected to the occupied West Bank; indeed, it was part of Jordan before the Israeli occupation in 1967. Moreover under the treaty with the Israelis – backed by international law – the King has a mandate to be the custodian of the holy sites in East Jerusalem. Chief amongst these is the Al Aqsa mosque, an area of 144,000 square metres in the centre of the old town dominated by the gold clad Dome of the Rock.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Al Aqsa to Muslims. It is the third most holy site in the Islamic world; the place where Muhammed is said to have travelled from Mecca and ascended into heaven. The Quran instructs all Muslims to defend Al Aqsa with their lives.

In a sense the Israeli government acknowledges just how important Al Aqsa is. The fact that they did a deal with Jordan to manage the site, even though they were in military occupation of the city around it would indicate some appreciation of its significance.

But as with so many aspects of life in Palestine, it is the occupation itself which is at the heart of the problem. Jordan has security guards on site, but they operate within a perimeter controlled by the Israeli Defence Force. And in recent years the on the ground actions of the IDF have been anything but respectful of the reverence in which Muslims hold this place.

Extremist settlers have been allowed, many would say assisted, in entering and occupying the mosque and using it to conduct Jewish ceremonies. The Israeli authorities now control both the number of Muslims who enter the mosque and the times they can do it.

Meanwhile to the annoyance of UNESCO, which declared Al Aqsa a world heritage site in 1982, excavations and tunnelling under the mosque are feared to threaten the foundations, threatening collapse? These excavations, sanctioned and protected by the Israeli government, are searching for Jewish artefacts from before the eight century to sustain an argument that this was a Jewish religious site first and Jews should “reclaim” it from Muslims. In more than 15 years of looking the archaeologists have yet to find anything at all which would evidence this claim.

All of this goes on as Israel continues the “Judaisation” of Jerusalem, with many in the government rejected the Oslo Accord and working towards a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This involves what one senior Jordanian called “ethnic cleansing without genocide”. Palestinians are evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem and new settlements built for Jewish settlers, many immigrating from across the world. Slowly it looks as if Israel is planning the encirclement of the Al Aqsa site with settlements, many populated by Zionist extremists.

There are some Jewish extremists who would gladly see Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock razed to the ground. Indeed, you can buy postcards in West Jerusalem where it has been photo-shopped out of the skyline. The question is whether the Israeli government will stand up to these groups and respect this most holy of Islamic sites, or whether they will condone and protect them. At the moment it’s all going in the wrong direction. As one senior advisor to the King put it “we have our crazies and they have theirs, it’s just they won’t admit it”

We met over fifty people in nine separate discussions in Jordan last week. To a man and women they were meticulous in their argument and reasonable in their presentation. But they left us in no doubt that East Jerusalem is a powder keg. If the Israelis set light to it we truly will not have seen anything yet.

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